The governor resides at his ex-girlfriend's house in New Castle, which is on the market with a finished basement that lacks a building permit
Municipal codes require building permits to protect the safety of homeowners seeking expansion of their home's living space.
Yet celebrity chef Sandra Lee has failed to obtain a building permit for the finished basement in her New Castle home where Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has developed into a stickler for safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, once lived full time but has kept as his official residence since their break-up a year ago.
Exactly what's in the basement of Cuomo and Lee's house has been a point of conjecture for years. Published reports have noted it was renovated. Cuomo has insisted there was nothing there. Lee refused to let the town assessor in to determine its taxable status.
The assessor put it on the tax rolls anyway in 2014, adding more than $8,000 a year to the property's annual tax bill, which now stands at $39,000.
At a briefing on Aug. 14, Cuomo, who remains registered to vote in New Castle but won't say whether he's still splitting housing expenses, called Lee’s 4 Bittersweet Lane Colonial "my house” when lamenting its power outage in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias.
News of Lee’s finished basement arose in August in the latest listing for her four-bedroom manse with five bathrooms, on a pond along Route 133. When she put it on the market in May 2019 for $2 million, the listing touted "the enchanting home of TV host/author Sandra Lee and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo."
By August 2019, when the asking price plummeted to $1.6 million, the house was called "the inspiring retreat of the Emmy award-winning chef and host Sandra Lee." The next month, Cuomo and Lee announced their amicable split, with Lee heading to California and Cuomo settling in at the Executive Mansion in Albany.
Neither listing mentioned a finished basement. The listing for 4 Bittersweet Lane, from a Sept. 9 screen shot, touted a "finished basement" and "unique 3-level layout."
Along with the finished basement came a $600,000 hike in the asking price to $2.2 million, as Lee appears to be attempting to cash in on New Castle’s COVID real estate boom.
New Castle Town Administrator Jill Shapiro, in a May 17, 2019, email obtained by Tax Watch, asked Lee whether she had obtained a permit for the basement improvements. Lee then asked Shapiro if one was necessary if all she did was paint and carpet the room.
"This is semantics — the only changes made to the basement were carpet and paint, neither of which requires a permit," said Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo's senior adviser.
New Castle Building Inspector Thomas DePole III declined comment regarding 4 Bittersweet Lane.
But he told Tax Watch that creating a finished basement in a home would “absolutely” require a building permit. He said it’s required under state guidelines incorporated into town building regulations.
“We are given a set of standards by New York state for our building code," DePole said. "This is the minimum requirement for life safety.”
DePole said that multiple problems could ensue at a home with a finished basement that lacks a permit.
“It’s not on the town’s registry, it’s not a habitable space, emergency responders don’t have access if they need to check a plan of the dwelling, and insurance companies have no record of it,” he said.
Anthony Lando, Lee's real estate broker from Julia B. Fee-Sotheby's Irvington office, said that 4 Bittersweet's "finished basement" is a downstairs room that could use some work.
"It's a fantastic house in a great town," he said. "Someone is going to make it a beautiful home."
The emergence of the finished basement in Lee’s marketing strategy comes six years after a Tax Watch investigation found mention of the finished basement at 4 Bittersweet Lane in several fawning press accounts of Lee’s wide-ranging renovations. Lee had not obtained building permits for any of the upgrades. That meant the finely finished improvements were unknown to the town assessor, who could have increased the property’s taxable value, based on work that was performed.
At the time, Cuomo insisted that there was no finished basement. In fact, he told Tax Watch in Peekskill in 2014 that there was “nothing” in the basement.
The then town assessor responded to the Tax Watch investigation. When he arrived for an inspection, Lee refused to let him in, as was her right. Nevertheless, he added the value of a finished basement to the home’s taxable inventory, which helped boost the assessment by 29% to $1.2 million.
The home's tax bill rose that year by about $8,200 to $36,500.
At the time, Cuomo was embroiled in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign against then-Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the Mount Pleasant Republican who held a press conference in New Castle, demanding that Lee allow town officials into the home for an inspection.
Astorino has returned to Cuomo's turf this summer in his bid to oust freshman state Sen. Pete Harckham, D-Lewisboro, in a district that includes New Castle.
Astorino spokesman Bill O'Reilly said that questions about Lee's basement in 2020 recalled events six years ago. While New Castle raised Lee's assessment, it could not be applied retroactively to recoup any tax savings enjoyed by New York's first couple.
"We were all but certain in 2014 that a double-standard was being applied in that household, and this reporting seems to prove it," O'Reilly said. "By illegally finishing their basement without permits, they avoided being reassessed and paying higher property taxes, so their neighbors had to pick up the slack. There seems to be two sets of rules in New York, one for the average citizen and the other for Albany politicians."
Rules to follow
Cuomo has emerged as a national leader in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, with his restrictive state policies helping reduce New York's infection rate.
At a Sept. 8 briefing, he explained the importance of state regulations that let bars open, but with certain restrictions. They worked, he said, with state investigators keeping a lid on big crowds and the cooperative spirit of New Yorkers to do the right thing.
"A rule is only as good as the compliance," Cuomo said. "I can say anything from up here, but it’s only as good as people’s willingness to follow it, and it's only as good as the establishments that follow it."
Non-compliance, he said, could be a way for bar owners to deal with tough economic times.
"It’s human nature," he said. "They are under economic pressure, and if they can increase economic activity by violating a rule, and nobody is going to catch them, then you tend to see violations."
As for the economic pressures felt at 4 Bittersweet, Cuomo had no comment.